Carlos Lozada -- Why EZ-Pass is good for babies

Sunday, November 1, 2009

If you need yet another reason -- beyond wasted gasoline, lost time and road rage -- to hate traffic jams, here's one: They're bad for babies.

Columbia University economist Janet Currie and doctoral student Reed Walker developed explored the impact of traffic -- and of pollution resulting from traffic -- on the weight and prematurity of newborns. Using data from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the authors examine the health outcomes of babies born to families living near toll plazas, comparing the outcomes before and after the introduction of EZ-Pass, the electronic payment system that allows motorists to pay tolls without slowing down their automobiles. The system has been linked to significant reductions in pollution (all that stopping and starting of cars at toll plazas adds up).

In their paper, "Traffic Congestion and Infant Health," published by the National Bureau for Economic Research, Currie and Walker find that reduced traffic congestion resulting from EZ-Pass reduces the incidence of premature birth (defined as less than 38 weeks of pregnancy) by 10.8 percent, and of low birth weight (2.5 kilograms or lower) by 11.8 percent. These results are for mothers living within 2 kilometers of a toll plaza; for those living within three kilometers, the changes are smaller but still clear (7.3 percent and 8.4 percent declines, respectively).

The authors focused on three major tollways -- the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway -- and relied on statebirth records from 1997 to 2002 (for Pennsylvania) and 1994 to 2003 (for New Jersey. They believe their results have national implications, however. Currie and Walker cite an Institute of Medicine study that puts the full costs to society of prematurity at $51,600 per infant, and they calculate that roughly 1 million children could be affected. As a result, nationwide reductions in prenatal exposure to traffic congestion could reduce preterm births by as many as 10,800 annually, a reduction that can be valued at $557 million per year."

And at least these researchers also practice what they preach: "When I drive over the George Washington Bridge or the Lincoln Tunnel," Currie said, "I always use EZ-Pass."

-- Carlos Lozada

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